From left, Michael McCarthy (Henry), Abigail Christensen (Luisa), Brooks Hope (Matt), Douglas Ladnier (El Gallo), and James Baker (Mortimer) in 'The Fantasticks' | Photo: Courtesy

Ojai Performing Arts Theater’s twinkling new production The Fantasticks is a magic box of a play: a musical parody about love in all its seasons.

The opening number will be familiar to many: “Try to remember the kind of September…” The narrator, a Spanish bandit known as El Gallo (celebrated Broadway singer Douglas Ladnier, bringing an extraordinary, goose-pimpling baritone), invites us to imagine ourselves back to our first love and what that felt like.

The backdrop is the swirling, liminal space where fairytale meets reality and is thus ripe for comedy both tender and broad. El Gallo presents us with two fathers, Hucklebee (Richard Kuhlman) with his 20-year-old son, Matt (Brooks Hope); and Bellomy (Marcus Kettles) with his 16-year-old daughter, Luisa (Abigail Rose Christensen)

The young people have both recently become quite mad, as adolescents are wont to do when their frontal lobes are still scrambled and they fall in first breathless love. Naturally, nobody has ever known a love like theirs. So far, so dreamy, so sweet. The couple dream and sigh and long for each other but between their fathers’ beloved gardens there is a wall, built, they believe, to keep them away from each other. Anybody who has passed through the chalk dust of a high school English class will recognize the Romeo and Juliet in all this, and the whole play glances up against some of Shakespeare’s famous lines in all manner of hilarious nod-and-wink ways, including some iambic tetrameter.

Enter the fathers. We learn that their feud is an act and they keenly want their children to marry. But, deploying the reverse psychology that, since time immemorial, parents have used on their offspring, they deduce the quickest way to achieve that is to say a big, fat “no” to Matt and Luisa’s love. Hence the wall, and cue one of the best songs in the show, “Never Say No.” Kuhlman and Kettles slay it, looking like they’ve been performing this together their whole lives, totally in command of themselves and the stage.

After much snooping, they determine the time is right to further things along. But how to set the ruse? An abduction! Wherein Matt rescues Luisa, sees off the ruffian, and is the swoon-some hero, etc.! But who to do the abducting?

In one of the clever subterfuges of the play, the narrator subverts his role, at once commenting on the action and also part of it. Enter, then, El Gallo as the organizer of the abduction and a fabulous song about getting what you pay for. (Cate Caplin’s choreography is loads of fun and plays to the considerable physical comedy skills of the cast.) He enlists Henry (Michael McCarthy) and Mortimer (James Baker) and the “abduction” proceeds as planned. Luisa is carried off screaming and, with some help from El Gallo, Matt wounds Ell Gallo. Blood and dying and gurgling.

“Happy Ending!” reads the banner as the fathers pretend they have been won over by Matt’s gallantry and now believe the young lovers are truly star-crossed.

But love, as we know, isn’t that simple. The pair have not been tested in their fantasy moonlit, secretive love. Night turns to day and “scenic turns to cynic.” Soon the two quarrel and feel trapped and the fathers are none too happy about being in-laws. El Gallo recruits Henry and Mortimer to whisk Matt away and show him the wild world of gambling, drinking, and carousing that he thinks he wants to make him a man of the world. El Gallo himself turns to seducing Luisa to teach her the lessons in love she needs to learn.

How will things resolve? Can anything be made right again after all the hurt and mayhem? Nothing is soft-peddled and the season turns to cold, hard reality.

It is genuinely difficult to say which is the more hilarious double act, Kuhlman and Kettle or McCarthy and Baker. But it hardly matters; the audience wins. Silliness rules, but it is just done so adroitly and so very well. The comedy performances and the incredible voices are ripe to be seen and heard. There are great big plums of songs to sink your teeth into. Andy Street on the piano, accompanied stage-side by harpist Laurie Rasmussen, provides the musical romance. There is even a well-placed, wry joke about paying regular union rates, a nod to current affairs.

Director Rosie Gordon realizes a wonderful show and does a splendid job keeping all the plates spinning with a great production team under her. The Fantasticks runs one more weekend only (September 1-3) at Matilija Auditorium (703 El Paseo Rd., Ojai). See


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